Researchers are calling for compulsory-standardised risk labels on alcoholic drinks following a study that voluntary ones aren't working.

The University of Otago study found alcohol-related risks including pregnancy, drink-driving and cancer needed to be made clearer.

But the NZ Alcohol Beverages Council has rejected those claims.

"Mandatory labelling is the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff in terms of preventing harm from alcohol," executive director Nick Leggett said.


The study found a total absence of any labels on some containers, on others there were "pea-size" pregnancy warnings, and there was a lack of detail generally about health risks, for example only 19 per cent warned about drink-driving.

The research was conducted by a group of fourth-year medical students, led by Georges Tinawi and Tessa Madeleine Gray, at the University of Otago, Wellington, and published in the international journal Drug and Alcohol Review.

They examined 59 alcoholic beverage containers available in New Zealand.

These included local and imported brands, and featured beers, wines, and ready-to-drink beverages (RTDs).

The researchers studied labels on the common beer varieties, and the cheapest wines and RTDs.

The study found "striking" variations and inconsistencies between the health warning messages displayed on different alcoholic beverages.

Eighty per cent had pregnancy-related warnings, found predominantly on beer, a product more commonly marketed to men.

"Only 19 per cent of drinks across the range had any warning regarding drink-driving, which is concerning given the persistent and significant role of alcohol in fatalities and injuries on New Zealand roads," said Tinawi.

Leggett shut down the study saying all it showed was that there was widespread labelling in New Zealand and "as we know this doesn't prevent harm".

"What we need is further education, starting younger, in partnerships between Government, industry and the community.

"We teach kids about sex and how to drive a car, but too often people go into the world without being sensibly educated about alcohol."

The researchers found that warning labels were markedly smaller than promotional elements on the drinks.

The study also found that around three quarters of beverages had industry-led messages such as "Cheers!" or "Enjoy responsibly".

"These messages are ambiguous from a health perspective and could even encourage further drinking," Tinawi said.

The researchers explored characteristics of effective warning labels such as large size, readable text and a clear message.

They noted that there "is a discrepancy between what we know works, and what is actually on the container surface", Tinawi said.

"It was clear that marketing material dominates what is on the alcohol container and there is little attention paid to consumers' right to know the health risks of the product," said Tessa Gray, another of the researchers.

Unlike Canada and the USA, New Zealand warning labels are voluntary.

The researchers believe that the size and design of the alcohol warnings does not reflect the evidence that the total health harm from alcohol is similar to that caused by tobacco.

The authors are calling for mandatory standardised labelling in New Zealand to avoid the inconsistencies identified in the study, and to also minimise attempts by the manufacturers to obscure health warnings.

Leggett said there was a robust Government process in place assessing how to use labelling.

"The vast majority of New Zealand alcohol products now contain pregnancy warnings after a successful voluntary roll-out of labels by industry.

"The alcohol sector is committed to reducing harm from alcohol products. That is done through real and continuous education."